Over the past two months, attention on the Ukraine War has generally focussed on the Russian eastern offensive. The Russians, having learnt some of the lessons of their failed Kyiv and Kharkiv offensives, have concentrated much of their combat power in eastern Ukraine, where they have slowly, painfully and brutally seized most of the Luhansk region.
But there is another front in this war that is also important: the campaign in the south. Because of its long-term economic implications for the state of Ukraine, the war in the south may prove even more decisive than the military operations in the Donbas.
Over the past month, Russia has increased its missile and artillery attacks across the south. While these attacks have some military utility, the Russians have a more strategic goal in mind. As retired American general Jim Dubik has written, “the territory that Russia controls in the south, less Odessa, puts Putin in a position to slowly choke Ukraine’s economy while continuing to pummel Ukraine’s cities, civilians, industry, cultural sites and infrastructure.”
Putin may have emphasised operations in the Donbas in his May 9 “victory” speech. But this deliberate and systemic destruction of Ukraine’s capacity to generate revenue may now be the Russian theory of victory.
The Ukrainians well understand the threat this poses. With most of its ports occupied by the Russians, and exports curtailed, it is affecting the Ukrainian economy as well as resulting in an increase in prices of food around the world. Both are a strategic threat to Ukraine.
The Ukrainians have consequently launched counter-attacks in the south that have resulted in the liberation of multiple Ukrainian towns in the Kherson region. These attacks have also put the Russians in a dilemma about the allocation of their forces between south and east. However, the Russians have constructed several “defensive lines” in Kherson. These will be difficult to fight through, and it remains to be seen whether the Ukrainians have sufficient forces in reserve for another grinding and expensive fight there.
The Ukrainians, however, have another element of their campaign to re-take their territory in the south: the Ukrainian resistance movement. This is not a movement that has risen organically in the wake of the invasion. Back in May 2021, the Ukrainian parliament passed its “Bill #5557” which provided for the “foundations of national resistance”. Additionally, in the lead-up to the war, weapons caches appear to have been put in various locations. It is likely that small teams of military specialists are training resistance cells across the south.
The conduct of such a resistance movement, also known as partisan or guerrilla warfare, has precedents in most major conflicts. This dangerous, behind-the-lines, warfare aims to absorb the attention of an occupying army, to slowly bleed its capacity and its morale in preparation for conventional offensives that will liberate that territory. This is what the courageous members of the French resistance did during the Nazi occupation. It is what the Ukrainians are doing now.